By Kate Hunger
In 21 years of practice as an occupational therapist, Laura Novak, OTD, OTR, BCG, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy, has become an expert in productive aging and in working with people with dementia and their caregivers.
Dr. Novak was hired in 2018 to expand the department’s clinical services—and she has. She is the occupational therapy clinician for the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases, the Mays Cancer Center and the new clinical driving evaluation clinic. She works with clients with movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and essential tremor, and she also serves as the occupational therapy clinician for the grant-funded, evidence-based Care of Persons with Dementia in their Environments (COPE) program, which helps caregivers develop the skills needed to manage care challenges related to dementia while helping people with dementia stay at the highest level of function possible. The COPE program, in collaboration with the School of Nursing, has transitioned to a virtual format in response to the pandemic.
“I’ve kind of gone where the need has led me,” said Dr. Novak, who was recently selected to receive a 2021 Presidential Clinical Excellence Award. The Presidential Awards recognize exemplary performance by individuals who consistently excel in their positions and demonstrate a strong commitment to the mission and core values of UT Health San Antonio.
There is richly relevant information to be gleaned from a deeper understanding of both a patient with dementia and their care partners, whether a hired caregiver or a family member, she said.
“We want to learn about their interests in the past; those things are still going to be meaningful,” she said. “The things (people with dementia) are doing are driven by something. We just have to help caregivers understand how we can use those things to shape their environment. We really have to look at what is the underlying cause of a behavior.”
So, for example, if a person with dementia used to take pride in organizing and cleaning, Dr. Novak would suggest providing a means for those occupations to continue.
“Let’s set up things around the home that allows her to do that,” she said. “We don’t want her picking up medicine or knives or bills, but let’s provide opportunities for her to pick up things that are inconsequential that she can go through them, sort them and put them in her pocket.”
Dr. Novak earned her OTD in 2020 and is board certified in gerontology with the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), for which she also serves as Home and Community Health Special Interest Section Chair. She embodies the values of the Presidential Clinical Excellence Award, said Bridgett Piernik-Yoder, PhD, OTR, associate professor and chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy.
“She has made many important contributions in clinical occupational therapy service at UT Health San Antonio in the areas of geriatrics, therapy services for people with dementia and their caregivers, and driving evaluation,” Dr. Piernik-Yoder said. “This has meant members of our community are able to receive these valuable services as part of their comprehensive care at UT Health San Antonio.”